Mental health in Early Modern England: Beyond Bedlam
Updated: Oct 12
During the late seventeenth century an Englishwoman named Hannah Allen lived with a 'Deep Melancholy:' a spiritual and physiological condition characterised by "overmuch sorrow", feelings of guilt, fear, helplessness or hopelessness with no immediate cause.
Melancholy as an 'affliction' in early modern Europe shared many symptoms we associate with what we now call Depression. It is a common assumption that before our modern conceptions of Psychology, whose roots can be traced back to the problematic ideas of Sigmund Freud, mental illness was simplistically understood, if acknowledged at all. This idea could not be further from the truth, and Hannah Allen’s seldom seen story is a powerful example of this.
Rather than be dismissed as mad and carted off to Bedlam, Allen was supported by a vast family network and had a sophisticated religious and physiological interpretation of her melancholy and despair. I want to explore this rich, contextually defined interpretation, but I also want to consider those parts of her text which powerfully resonate with a modern audience. Because by investigating stories like hers, we can help normalise and historicise mental illness, recognising its diversity and legitimacy over space and time – a crucial thing to remember as the psychological impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are felt ever more strongly around the world.
Hannah Allen, born circa 1638 to a Presbyterian merchant family, published an 80-page pamphlet of her experiences with melancholy in 1683 with the intention of helping others get through similar experiences. She interprets her situation through a religious lens – not uncommon for the time. This is immediately evident within the pamphlet’s title, which presents Allen as directly between God and the Devil.
The title page reads: "A Narrative of God’s Gracious Dealings… Reciting The great Advantages the Devil made of [Hannah Allen’s] deep Melancholy, and the Triumphant Victories… God gave her over all his Stratagems and Devices."
Allen’s strict Presbyterian upbringing is at the heart of her descriptions of her experiences; she describes her soul as being directly invaded by the Devil himself: "the enemy of my Soul… cast… horrible blasphemous thoughts and injections into my mind…" These "temptations", as she describes them, persuaded her that she was a "cursed reprobate," a "hypocrite" and one who had committed an "Unpardonable Sin." Subsequently, she grew terrified of scripture as she interpreted it as reflecting or relating to her evil spirit. 
Allen writes that as her condition grew worse, she became convinced that God would show her no mercy and had a diabolical fate in store for her. To prevent this, and to keep her corrupting the soul of her child, she repeatedly planned her suicide. This section of her narrative is particularly distressing to read, made more bearable only by fact that the title of the work makes it clear that she did, in fact, recover.
In every case the narrative describes, Allen's own mental efforts or a member of her household prevents her from taking her own life, and she eventually received some effective help. A pair of family friends counselled her back to health, though the details on how exactly they did so are vague. What Allen does tell us is that they gave her the space she needed while coaching her toward a recovery. While her narrative acknowledges the positive impact of this social network, she ultimately attributes her recovery to God’s triumph over the Devil for her "soul", once again emphasising the degree to which this was a spiritual affliction. But that was not all it was.
Allen's perception of her melancholy was not restricted to viewing it as a spiritual malady; it was closely wound up with physiology. Allen concludes,
"As my dark Melancholy bodily distempers abated, so did my spiritual Maladies also, and God convinced me by degrees; that all this was from Satan, his delusions and temptations, working in those dark and black humours…" 
The physiological concept of the four humours, of which Melancholy, or Black Bile, was one, is clearly evident here. An excess of Black Bile, Allen writes, had "bad effects upon my body greatly impairing my health" which allowed "the Devil [to] set on with his… temptations."  This amalgamation of the physical and spiritual is indicative of a complex framework of the body, emotions and the mind, one which was engaged with by members of the English public.
While these seventeenth century interpretations can appear alien to us, with our twenty-first century secular frameworks based in cognitive science, many of Allen’s behaviours and thought patterns resonate with those of us living with depression or anxiety. On the few occasions she would smile, she would check herself and feel guilty for it. She would shun company, while some part of her desired it, leading to even more conflicted feelings. Her health grew worse despite "physick [medical treatment] and journeys to several friends for diversion." 
Her family and friends, meanwhile, were highly supportive towards her, and their actions would not seem out of place in today's world; her supportive mother and aunt patiently reasoned with Allen, arguing that she couldn’t possibly be Damned, which, while well meaning, was understandably ineffectual. One line in particular is striking in its display of a very familiar insight: "'Cousin," Allen’s aunt once exasperatedly exclaimed,
'"Would you but believe you were melancholy it might be a great means to bring you out of this condition."' 
Just as the recognition and acknowledgement of harmful and depressive thoughts is part of cognitive therapies now, so too did it play a role then, albeit as part of a very different interpretive framework.
We need to be careful not to take a presentist view of cases such as these, cases which sharply remind us of our shared humanity with people from the past. But it is important to identify and, in some way, console ourselves with the fact that what many of us are feeling has a long and diverse history. By contextualising those experiences and placing first-hand accounts into the spotlight, we can give life back to those marginalised in the past. In doing so, we help legitimise similar experiences in our modern context, bringing mental health and mental wellbeing further into our political and societal conversations.
Daniel Beaumont is a first year PhD candidate in History at the University of Auckland. His research explores the perceptions and functions of melancholy and despair among Early Modern English women writers. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
 Richard Baxter, Preservatives against melancholy and over-much sorrow; or the cure of both. Written above thirty years ago, by the Reverend Mr. Richard Baxter, for the Benefit and Comfort of all such as are Afflicted in Mind, in Body, or both. London, 1716.
 Hannah Allen, A narrative of god's gracious dealings with that choice christian mrs. hannah allen (afterwards married to mr. hatt,) reciting the great advantages the devil made of her deep melancholy, and the triumphant victories, rich and sovereign graces, god gave her over all his stratagems and devices. London, 1683. pp. 3, 50.
 ibid., p. 72.
 ibid., pp. 15, 8.
 ibid., p. 10.
 ibid., p. 60.